Poor Skycatcher…hobbled, handicapped — and then ultimately heaved?

Well…this has wedged in my throat far long enough…time to clear the airway and unstick this from my craw: Last month’s backhanded remarks by Cessna boss Scott Earnest about his company’s beleaguered 162 Skycatcher LSA may sadly mark the end of a once promising expansion of the planemaker’s product line, downscale and back into the trainer/personal airplane market. Pity that the little plane suffered from, in my view, a parade of poor decisions stretching back to when it was but a gleam in Jack Pelton’s eye.

Jack, a savvy executive, recognized the potential — potential, mind you — for a well-conceived, affordable LSA to reinvigorate the general aviation pipeline with new blood. In contrast to remarks at NBAA about the lack of a business model for the plane, the business model for the Skycatcher followed a long-successful pattern Cessna helped pioneer and others mimicked: capture the student pilot’s loyalty to the plane that made that student a pilot, make it possible for the newly minted pilot to buy, and gain a step-up customer — likely for life, and for at least as long as that person could continue to move up the model chain.

The jet makers continue to validate this approach year after year. But seven years ago, Cessna had as a “trainer” only the venerable and suitable 172 Skyhawk, returned to production in 1996 — and by now adorned with a Garmin G1000 panel and a price tag that cut into the bird’s viability as rental trainer. Cessna decided against also resuming a two-seater on the input of large institutional flight-instruction operators who helped make their airplane payments building in time for flight students to pay to be observers, watching other students from the back seat — sort of like our driver’s ed classes. Sadly, students weren’t rushing to pay three-figure prices for instruction in rental Skyhawks…and the approaching Light-Sport Aircraft movement threatened to shut Cessna out of the game with waves of already in-production trainers and two-seaters from Europe and South America.

The old 152 could not be built to meet the LSA regs; a new design was in order.

In June, 2006, Cessna, still run by Jack Pelton, announced plans to study the feasibility of launching its own LSA. Options considered included buying an existing design — as Piper did before pulling out of the market — or a home-rolled design. In the end EAA member and aircraft designer Neal Willford got the task of designing the new plane. Cessna did surveys of pilots and flight schools and FBOs, asking: What engine? What avionics? What features?

Respondents split on the engine; institutional customers wanted the Continental O-200 offered by TCM; end-user types — the pilots Cessna wanted to actually buy the planes — favored the Rotax 912. Cessna went with the Continental touting its history and the familiarity of the shops and schools.

It was the first major mistake. It would not be the last.

Cessna wanted the airplane built a little heavier than execs were seeing in other metal LSA designs; end users wanted a parachute — Cessna made it an option. And the already high empty weight made the chute unattractive.

Then came the China controversy. Cessna, with the option to launch a new low-cost approach to manufacturing a simple airplane, opted instead for assembly by a partner in China: Shenyang Aircraft. The second big mistake — and one with two issues.

The first was the revolt of many of the 1,000 plus order holders who expected a U.S. made airplane. The second was the more damaging: the lengthy supply line and issues with quality control compounded the costs of shipping engines, props, electronics and avionics, wheels, tires, brakes and raw materials to China for fabrication into an airplane. After test-flying the product it’s disassembled and packed into a single ready-for-assembly package that then has to be shipped back across the Pacific to what were originally supposed to be three assembly points – to be reassembled and, again, test flown. Today, only one such assembly site operates, at Yingling Aviation in Wichita.

After some delays and early quality issues the first Skycatcher was delivered to Rose Pelton in December 2009 and she began here flight training in her new LSA. The stage was set…but problems seemed to continue.

When quality control problems surfaced the process of correcting the problems was exacerbated by the location of the factory; changes and upgrades to some airplanes waited for them to arrive in Wichita.

These mistakes proved costly and, to a certain respect, irreconcilable with the little plane’s mission.

Jack Pelton wanted an airplane costing around $100,000; adorned with the special Continental and the G300 Garmin panel, weighted down by the shipping costs of two trips across the Pacific, and handicapped by its low useful load and fuel requirements, the little bird has lost most of the 1,000 orders it once commanded. The Skycatcher can’t compete in payload or range with several other LSAs in the same and lower price ranges.

The lighter weight and lower fuel burn of the Rotax would have, could have, made the plane more competitive and less costly to own and fly. As it is, two 175-pound people and 50 pounds of luggage leave you with fuel capacity enough for about 250 miles between stops — OK if that’s what you want. But other options exist that don’t have such challenges — some at considerably lower costs.

It isn’t a flawed business model that brings the Skycatcher to the point of “no future.” It’s corporate ignorance of its end customers’ wants and needs, a myopic focus on detail costs and a resulting series of more-expensive, erroneous decisions that failed to considered end users — the ultimate owners. And then China’s middle class started commanding higher wages, shipping costs went up, and choice of China lost any of its presumed logic.

And here’s the irony of the whole thing: The Skycatcher flies wonderfully and could be an excellent teacher for a new generation of pilots. It cruises fast, is fairly comfortable and has far more room than its payload lets you use — though the lower fuel use of the Rotax would boost range by about 35 percent on any given amount of fuel.

Fortunately for the future of general aviation, the Skycatcher, if indeed destined to be a footnote in aviation history and not a headliner, leaves plenty of other LSA out there able to supply what pilots want — albeit few yet at a pricepoint that we need to set the world on fire with LSA sales numbers.